Lent 2, Nicodemus
Our readings this morning are not ones that I can take in the usual order, OT to NT to Gospel. On the face of it the Genesis and Romans readings give us the background to who Nicodemus, who is of course representative if a particular faithful Jewish tradition, he is a Pharisee. Pharisees get a poor press in some readings of the NT, but it isn’t deserved. Paul was himself a Pharisee by training, and they were scholars, perhaps an imperfect comparison might be that they were the Jesuits, or Dominicans of the Jewish faith of their day. They were highly educated in the law of Moses, and its wider interpretations as handed down in the wider teaching of those who sought the righteous and holy life through worship in the synagogues and the great Temple of Jersualem. They are portrayed as extremists largely because the role of the religious hierarchy in opposing Jesus’s claims, but their role was to uphold orthodox thinking among Jews, which of course found the claims of Jesus beyond their understanding of what scripture, as they understood it, meant. The Law as revealed to Moses, and the call of the patriarchs starting with Abraham, were the history that they studied. True there was int his tradition the idea that Israel as God’s chosen people awaited the Messiah as God’s final victory over all that opposed their understanding, but as with many convinced groups of people, when the Messiah came in the person of Jesus, he seemed not the answer the fulfilment of that promise, but yet another young preacher who they thought sought to undermine their authority to define what was correct and true, and they opposed him.
So Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus is significant indeed, not least because he was a deeply thoughtful Pharisee, impressed and challenged by Jesus’s actions as well as what he taught. Nicodemus had kept his mind open, for him it wasn’t simply a matter of being an expert in the texts and traditions, but he retained a deep passion to understand how God continued to work in the world and speak to his people. so he was attracted to this young teacher’s life, saw in it things that made him think and reflect on the promises at the heart of the faith he knew so well. If he could heal, cast out demons, move the hearts of great crowds, and work among the needy and those felt outside of the mainstream of those who did as they were told, who was he? And therein lies what these readings take as their starting point.
Paul’s passage from Romans is familiar to anyone who studied the basis of the Reformation, for it has been used as the basis on which many, not least Martin Luther framed the idea that we are justified, that is made holy, not by what we do, our acts, but by our faith, what we believe. Jesus in the Gospel underlines this very point, it is less how we react to his works of healing and power, but what we believe that to mean. Jesus is saying, as Paul is, we should have faith not because we have seen acts of power, for that is what the faithless world wants – show me prove it, leave me in no doubt. Both value having faith, literally taking on trust, what God reveals to us. And the corollary of that is something that intrigued the reformers who were not comfortable with the medieval idea that one could in some way live a life which incrementally by what we did – acts of charity, prayer, pilgrimage, attendance at acts of worship, and so on, add up to enough to save our souls. Of course it was expressed then in its most extreme form, for it is not the witness of scripture that acts and deeds don’t count, that the law with its strictures on behaviour, both spiritual and practical amounted to nothing or were not needed, but that they were not in themselves anything that replace that which should come first – trust in God’s desire to redeem humanity through the sending of His beloved Son, the Messiah and the Redeemer.
What is important for us this Lent in the conversation with Nicodemus, and the other readings is I think to do with getting the basics right. We don’t respond to the life and teaching of Jesus first and foremost by changing our lives to imitate Him, much as that is of course also required. First and foremost, we respond by trusting God’s revelation of His intentions in His Son. As both say He sent His Son not to condemn but to redeem, we are to accept within ourselves this grace, this unmerited, unconditional love, that offers both forgiveness, acceptance and through the merits of the Resurrection the gift of eternal life. So this Lent as we attempt in our own way to live what we think is a life less distracted by the world, more focused on building a relationship with God that is personal and familiar, we do so not because we don’t want to break laws, not because we want to be sure we are following the right rules, but because we believe we are the recipients of divine grace, restorative forgiveness and ultimately eternal redemption. From that, as the Gospels bear witness if we truly accept this, then we will want to live as those who have been loved first by God, and so we will both want to imitate Christ, but also to follow His injunction to share that grace, forgiveness and grace with all we meet. Before Christ the only mechanism people felt worked was the following in detail and with as much precision as they could manage what they thought God meant, and they did so because they feared the consequences of breaking or not living up to those laws. We who have faith in Jesus Christ have not forgotten the revelation of God to Moses, but know that we need to be open to the unpredictable moving of the Spirit, that often God speaks, as the Gospels make clear, through the least likely people or events, and that if we mistake religion for a rules based system of ethics, then we are in fact missing most of what God in Christ intended. Too often, even today, conversations around religion are indeed based in long held views about forbidden things, and yet that is not really what has happened. I believe that God’s relationship with humanity did not end 2000 years ago, but through the Holy Spirit continues to this day. For as history progresses we need to find ways to respond to God that would possibly have been unthought by those on the past. Don’t forget that faithful Christians today would not take the same views on things such as the place of slavery in society, the role of women, capital punishment, corporal punishment, how the world came about, science, disease , especially mental health and much more, as they are assumed in the bible as they were culturally unchallenged at that time. And if those then what else have we learned and how can we interpret that in the light of faith? It is simply untrue that faith isn’t challenged in each generation to reflect on change, on revelations unknown to previous generations, Nicodemus is a wonderful example of the faithful Jew who yet remained open and questioning, always looking for God in the life around him, a proper role model for Lent if ever there was one.
It can be easier to work at faith than simply to accept we are loved and forgiven first, and then respond – and some might ask does it make a difference? Well it does, because being born again means being radically transformed in this life, so we know we are loved and redeemed, accepted and loved by God, and sadly many live a life worthy of God and yet retain the burdens of feeling unloved and unredeemed. That I believe is what is important, it is that acceptance by God which fuels all else we can do and be, because we need making whole. Lent is the chance to try to accept that truth first and foremost.